By Eric Green
For over 30 years the late Jean-Yves Escoffier photographed an array of very diverse films—ranging from Three Men and a Cradle in 1985 to Gummo in 1997—and was one of the most sought after cinematographers worldwide. He had an affinity for an unconventional and experimental style that he would apply to even the most commercial Hollywood projects.
Escoffier was born in Lyon, France in 1950. He studied cinematography at the École Louis Lumière in Paris. He would keep busy working on short films for many years before collaborating with French director Leos Carax on three films. The first, Boy Meets Girl (1984), would make an impressive debut at Cannes. Their work drew comparisons to the French New Wave and was acclaimed for its remarkable black-and-white photography and use of light and composition.
Their second collaboration, Mauvais Sang (Bad Blood), 1986, garnered him a Cesar nomination in 1987 for best cinematography for its innovative static close-ups and dynamic moving camera shots. Many of its images and techniques would later be used in other films—and specifically in music videos. Lovers on the Bridge, 1991, for which he won the European Film Award, would round out the trilogy. In it, the streets, skies and waterways of Paris were used as a backdrop to the story in a series of indelible visuals.
Crossing over to the United States in the 1990s, Escoffier served as cinematographer for many high-profile releases. Always more interested in more experimental and independent-minded efforts, Escoffier lensed Gummo, writer/director Harmony Korine’s excursion into the grotesque, which tells the story of a small Ohio town suffering in the aftermath of a devastating tornado. There are some visually arresting shots of a mildly retarded woman shaving her eyebrows, of a kid in bunny ears running in the rain. The imagery is sad and reminiscent of the work of photographer Diane Arbus.
Escoffier was in demand in the late 90’s, working with some of the world’s top directors, including: Gus Van Sant for Good Will Hunting (1997); Martin Scorsese for his documentary A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese: Through American Movies (1998); Tim Robbins for Cradle Will Rock (1999); and Neil LaBute for both Nurse Betty (2000) and Possession (2002). He also worked on numerous short films, as well as commercials and music videos, where he collaborated with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, David Lynch, Lars Von Trier and Mark Romanek. His photography for the heartbreaking Johnny Cash video, Hurt, shows the late singer performing the song in his home, with no attempt made to hide his age or increasing frailty. He won the MTV Music Video award for Best Cinematography and the Kodak Salute Award for his work.
He had just completed The Human Stain (2003) for director Robert Benton when he died of heart failure in his Los Angeles home on April 1st 2003. He was 52.
By Eric Green